The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Admirable Practice of Looking After #1

Prof. Denis Dutton

This first appeared in the New Zealand Herald. A friend, Prof. Denis Dutton (1944–2010) had published a piece praising depoliticized capitalism and I responded that he didn’t go far enough. It drove a number of ideologues nuts to have two libertarians debating in the largest newspaper in the country.

Two Cheers for Denis Dutton

Two cheers for Denis Dutton and his article on capitalism’s staggering success.

Alas, only two cheers. There is much in Professor Dutton’s essay that is correct. He is on target about the benefits of capitalism and his remarks about Marxists and intellectuals are not far off the mark.

But I fear he is wrong when he says capitalism lacks moral grandeur. It appears he equates morality with altruism. He equally equates self-interest with immorality.

He writes: “There is no divine right or grand moral justification for capitalism. It accepts that self-interest is at the bottom of human action and figures out how to use the impulse for the good of everyone.”

Here is where I part company with Professor Dutton. He seemingly assumes self-interest is not a moral virtue. He apparently accepts the idea that self-interest is not a virtue at all.

But that idea ultimately leads to a world of self-sacrificing beings, each one voluntarily throwing him or herself upon an altar to be slain — often but not always metaphorically — for the god of the common good.

Those who preach sacrifice often find a scarcity of willing victims and are compelled to help this “self-sacrificing” process along.

Hence the Holocaust, the Gulag and the killing fields. Each time they justify the slaughter in the name of the common good.

Why is self-interest immoral? Why isn’t self-interest a virtue? Every living creature can exist only if it acts in its own self-interest. If the prime value to human beings is life, then liberty must follow. People must be free to pursue their self-interest with one proviso: they must respect the moral rights of others to seek their own values in their own ways.

They have to respect the fact that everyone else is equally as human as they are thus deserving of precisely the same rights.

Humans who are not free to act cannot produce; if they are not free to keep that which they produce, they cannot survive.

This is the origin of the great Enlightenment triad of rights: life, liberty, and the right to property. Capitalism is moral because it lets people have precisely that.

I appreciate the greedy capitalist who tries desperately, often unsuccessfully, to make me happy.

In the market he must satisfy consumers or risk bankruptcy. In a truly free market he has no ability to compel customers. That, I fear, is mostly left up to government agents.

Whether it is cars, organic vegetables or sleazy books, the capitalist is at the mercy of consumers in that he must produce something they are willing to buy at a price at which he is capable of making a profit. No consumers, no profits. No profits, no capitalist.

Capitalists may try to persuade consumers to buy specific goods. They may use every method of seduction available to entice a sale. But there is a world of different between seduction and rape — between markets and controls.

The first is merely what we do voluntarily — even if at times we make mistakes in our choices — and the second exists because those who enforce the controls have the power to compel individuals against their will.

The capitalist may be a seducer. The Marxist — and other authoritarians — is a rapist.

I find the fact markets allow the maximization of individual choices to be a moral principle. Marx saw humans as clay to be moulded into super-beings via social engineering. Capitalism is far more realistic. Surely a consistency with the facts of reality is itself another moral virtue.

What morality is possible if we ignore reality? It is reality that determines the moral or the immoral. Actions are right because they produce desired results consistent with our nature. There is no conflict between the practical and the moral.

It appears that although Professor Dutton believes capitalism to be practical, he cannot bring himself to see that is also moral.

This is not to say there is no common good. There is. But the common good is that which is equally necessary for all of us as humans. The common good is equal liberty for all. It comes when we all respect the rights of others, when we trade voluntarily instead of plundering — either directly or through the force of law.

Capitalism is consistent with these facts of reality. It is consistent with human needs and abilities and it recognizes human limitations. It might not be as sexy as the social engeineers’ utopian dreams, but it certainly does not lack a moral foundation.

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